If you’ve seen the Oscar-winning, and hilarious, 1992 comedy My Cousin Vinny, you know the plot ends up turning on the question of how long it takes grits to cook. (That’s not a spoiler, by the way.) If you’re not from the South, though, you may not know this is actually a very serious question, not just Hollywood poking fun at a stereotype.
Whenever I hear someone say they hate grits, I ask if the grits they had could stay in one place on a plate, like mashed potatoes. No? OK, that’s your problem right there.
Grits made right are awesome. Made wrong, they’re awful. Let’s take a look at what grits are and how to make them as God intended.
What is a grit, anyway?
Grits are corn. It’s not really any more complicated than that. But whether you’re going to get a dish with any real corn flavor to it depends on how the corn is prepared. Your three basic variables here are whether the whole kernel is used, how finely the corn is ground, and if it’s pre-cooked or raw.
Let’s take a look at how these variables play out in the varieties of grits you’ll find at the store….
I’m just going to come right out and say that if you want flavor, stone-ground is the way to go. These are coarse-ground, whole-grain grits made with the entire kernel including the germ. You’ll notice dark flecks among the yellow or white meal (depending on what kind of corn is used) which you won’t see in other varieties.
Stone-ground grits take the longest to prepare, anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the coarseness of the grain and whether they’re raw or partially pre-cooked. Because the germ can go rancid, you’ll want to store these sealed in your freezer.
Most of the bulk grits you’ll find in a typical grocery store are of the “regular” or “quick” variety, meaning the hull and germ have both been stripped away — similar to the processes used to produce white flour and white rice — and the resulting meal has been medium- or fine-ground and partially pre-cooked to reduce preparation time. Typically, these will take about five or ten minutes to prepare, depending on the grind size, and will have a less robust flavor than stone-ground.
I would steer clear of these if you’re going to serve grits as a stand-alone dish, simply because of the flavor that’s lost in the processing. If you’re making a dish that includes grits primarily for texture, and has lots of very strong flavors in it from other ingredients, then these styles are a viable option. The quicker the cooking time, the finer the texture will be.
These are fully prepared and dehydrated, fine-grained, processed (not whole-grain) grits, and they are horrible. You’ll often find them with all sorts of flavorings added because they barely have any of their own. The only use I have for them is to stash a couple packets in the glovebox of my car in case I get a hole in the radiator that needs to be plugged in an emergency.
If you’ve ever had insipid, runny, textureless grits that taste about the same as the box they came in, you were probably eating instant. They only take a few seconds to prepare, but keep in mind it also only takes a few seconds to break all your fingers with a hammer. Speed doesn’t count for everything.
How to make awesome grits
First off, as I’ve said, start with the right kind. My advice is to always use stone-ground. You don’t have to go with raw grits and spend an hour on them to get good corn flavor. I like a brand called House Autry which cooks for about 15 minutes, but there are plenty of other excellent brands to choose from.
As to yellow, white, or blue grits, personally I don’t think I could tell the difference among them if I were blindfolded. They all taste like corn to me. But if you prefer one over the other, or you think one kind is going to look best on the plate, go with that.
Now corn needs salt. You’ll want to add salt to the dry grits. I don’t know why this is, but cooking with the salt enhances the natural flavor of the grits without making them taste salty. Once they’re cooked, it’s harder to get the flavor just right without going over.
If you’re new to grits, you’ll probably be following directions that tell you to simmer them in water, typically in a 4-to-1 ratio for whole grits. While there’s nothing wrong with that, you can take it to another level simply by substituting half the water either with broth or with milk, buttermilk, of half-and-half, depending on whether you’re after a savory flavor or a richer taste and creamier texture.
The final step is to add some fat and black pepper toward the end of the simmer. Butter and bacon grease are the most common choices, but I prefer a dab of cream cheese instead. Not only does the fat enhance the flavor, it also helps the grits set up so they’re not runny.
If you’ve done all the above, you should have a delicious side dish that can stand on its own. But you don’t have to stop there. Try topping your grits with grated cheese, crumbled bacon, or a sliced hard-cooked egg. (Pro tip: Try steaming your eggs rather than boiling them if you want an easy peel.)
For a real Southern treat, fry up some country ham — bone-in, salt-cured pork — while your grits are cooking. Then add a spoonful or two of coffee to the pan juices to make red-eye gravy. Put a dent in the plated grits with the back of a spoon and fill it with the gravy.
Of course, if you’re really ambitious you can fix some shrimp gravy to serve over your grits. That’s a whole meal in itself right there. If you want to see what’s involved, take a peek at my article on gravies and scroll down to the high difficulty recipes….
No more sorry grits
Now you know how to make grits right. If you follow these instructions and still don’t care for them, then you can say “I don’t like grits.” But unless you just don’t like corn, I’m betting that won’t be the case.
By the way, if you’re not from the South, and you ever have houseguests who are, you can have a bit of fun with them by announcing that you’re serving grits with breakfast because you’ve heard it’s a Southern staple. Your guests will be perfectly polite and will express enthusiasm, but you’ll see in their eyes that they’re dreading what’s going to show up on their plates. When you serve up a mess of properly prepared grits, their relief and astonishment will be palpable.
So have fun, y’all, and enjoy. And remember, life’s too short to eat instant grits!